Getting an Eye Tattoo Can Blind You
You may have heard about a new frontier in body modification: eyeball tattoos or scleral tattoos. You can easily find photos online (some real, some fake) of people who have had the whites of their eyes colored black or any color of the rainbow. You're also likely to run across stories of people whose eyeball tattoos have gone horribly wrong.
Just because some people have gotten away with scleral tattooing doesn't mean it's safe, legal or a good idea.
Risks of eyeball tattoos include:
Even if it's done without damaging the eye, scleral tattooing also makes it harder for your doctor to examine the health of your eye in the future.
Eyeball tattoos have not been medically or scientifically studied, and the procedure was not developed by a doctor. If done as intended, the tattooist injects ink just under the surface of the conjunctiva, so it colors the sclera – the white part of the eye. If the needle isn’t in exactly the right place, the ink can be injected into the inside of the eye, onto the retina or into the tissue around the eye. Any of these mistakes can have lasting, terrible consequences, including lost vision and ongoing pain. Because scleral tattoos are not a traditional part of tattooing, there is no formal training, licensing or certification process for people doing this procedure.
Scleral tattooing was outlawed in Nebraska in early 2019, joining bans in Oklahoma, Indiana and the Canadian province of Ontario. Lawmakers in Washington state are also considering a ban.
For a safer way to change the appearance of your eyes, visit your ophthalmologist to get a prescription for costume contact lenses. Colored contact lenses can sometimes be found online or even in costume shops. But don't use any contacts unless they've been prescribed and fitted by a doctor. It's illegal to sell contacts in the United States without a prescription. Contaminated, counterfeit or ill-fitting lenses can cause their own blinding eye problems.
Case: Woman's Vision Permanently Damaged by Botched Scleral Tattoo
Catt Gallinger knew something was wrong with her eyeball tattoo as soon as it was done. News outlets around the world reported on her story after she shared it on Facebook in September 2017. She had immediate pain, and purple liquid started oozing out of her eye, before she rushed to the hospital for treatment. According to Gallinger's Facebook post, the person performing her scleral tattoo made multiple mistakes. Newsweek reports that the procedure has left her with reduced vision, clumps of tattoo ink around her cornea and ongoing pain.
Case: Eye Tattoo Leads to Removal of the Eye
Also in 2017, Paul Freund, MD, and Mark Greve, MD, from the University of Alberta in Canada reported on a tragic case. A 24-year-old man underwent an eyeball tattoo procedure and experienced a sudden, painful loss of vision while the tattoo artist was injecting ink into the first eye.
According to a video presentation of the case by Drs. Freund and Greve, the ink had been injected too deep, into the vitreous humor in the middle of the eye.
The patient sought treatment three days after the tattoo procedure. Drs. Freund and Greve removed the vitreous and the lens of the eye. The lens had been damaged by the needle during the tattoo procedure. The doctors discovered that the mixture of vitreous and tattoo ink was contaminated with bacteria. Two surgeries and multiple procedures to deliver antibiotics were done to try to control the infection and complications from the tattoo procedure.
Eventually, the entire eye had to be removed because the young man was in so much pain. After the eye was removed, the retina and inside of the eye were found to be stained with ink. There was also cell loss on the corneal epithelium—which keeps the cornea healthy. Even if the eye had been saved, the patient would have had serious vision problems.
Learn more by watching a clinical video about this case Warning: video includes graphic surgical footage.
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